Following the release of Howard the Duck on August 1, 1986, I found myself becoming downright obsessed with the film. I knew that it was considered the year’s biggest flop, but that didn’t disuade me one bit from my mission to track down everything related to the movie I could get my hands on (to this day I still think Kenner-style action figures based on the flick are a good idea…Funko, are you listening?).
Being something of an indoor kid who spent his time reading comics and playing games on the Commodore 64, I secretly wished that the video game gods would grant me a Howard the Duck tie-in game despite the movie’s failure at the box office. Then, while reading through a magazine at a local book store some months later, I saw an ad that made my pre-pubsecent heart stop. It seemed that my wishes had come true, and Activision, the same company that had released my all-time favorites Pitfall and Ghostbusters, was releasing Howard the Duck: Adventure on Volcano Island — a game that also served as a sequel to to the movie.
When I finally got the game on Christmas morning, I was entranced by the gameplay promised on the back of the box:
What if your two best friends suddenly disappeared?
What if they were being held prisoner in an active volcano by a dark overlord?
What if to save them you had to jump over quicksand. Cross treacherous rivers. Fight off an army of mutants. Brave high winds in an ultralite aircraft. Parachute into the mouth of a volcano. Do battle with the Dark Overlord. And, somehow, stop the volcano from erupting?
Got it figured out?
Now, what if you were a duck…?
Hell and yes. Upon loading the game, I was treated to a mini concert sequence in which Howard cavorts on stage to his theme music. Then, this screen appeared:
Rad. It turns out that Beverly and Phil have been kidnapped by yet another Dark Overlord, and taken to a tropical island where he will doubtlessly use the duo as a part of his vague-yet-evil plans. Howard won’t have this, so he sets out to rescue them. Sounds great, right? Let’s take a look at the gameplay in action:
As you can imagine, I was heartbroken. This game was a dud. For some reason, the programming team of Troy Lyndon, Scott Orr, Harald Seeley, and John Cutter had crafted a release that was absolutely lacking any of the goofy fun of the film it was inspired by. Howard may have been trapped in a world he never made, but players suffered a worse fate: They were trapped in a shitty videogame.
As for the actual gameplay, it’s pretty grim. Clad in what appears to be a pair of pea-green pajamas, Howard wanders aimlessly from one level to the next. Sometimes he is unable to complete jumps, causing his demise. Other times, he is destroyed by the game’s “mutants,” no-frills Goombas. Then there is an unbearable sequence where the player must keep Howard’s ultralite plane airborne and reach the volcano where the Dark Overlord is keeping your friends.
It’s all pretty dire.
Many a player suffered through this game with the hope of seeing what the alien from the Nexus of Sominus would look like pixelated, as the monster design was a highlight of the film. Spoiler alert: It’s ass…
After defeating the shit-colored Dark Overlord, Howard turns off the volcano by hitting a switch (that’s not how nature works) and then waddles off screen. We never see him embrace Beverly and Phil, his good pals whose lives he has saved. There is no valedictorian Cherry Bomb concert a la the film. All there is a a medal with the players name, a crude image of Howard, and an admittedly great chiptune rendition of the “Howard the Duck” song.
So what went wrong here? First and foremost, the decision to not base this game on the movie was a bad one. It’s great to see Howard’s story continue, but there had to be a better, or at least marginally fun way, to make it happen. The game as released is all tedium, no entertainment. Where is the music? Where are the characters we love? And again, why is this set on a tropical island?
Actually, I may have an answer for that. Originally, the Howard the Duck creative team of Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz wanted to set the film in Hawaii, with Howard working as a private investigator (and also because its really nice there). So it’s possible that the game designers could have been inspired by this fact and decided to set the game in a tropical paradise. Another, though much less likely, possibility is that this game was based on an extremely early script that still had this setting — indeed, if one was ever even finished.
There is the likely prospect that Howard the Duck wasn’t high on Activision’s development priority list at the time. While this game was in production, so too were ones based on Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Labyrinth (which featured input from everyone from Jim Henson to Douglas Adams during its tumultous gestation period). Meanwhile, they were also cranking out groundbreaking titles like Pitfall creator David Crane’s Little Computer People and the underrated graphic adventure Tass Times in Tonetown.Add up all of these factors and its unsurprising that Howard wasn’t given the love he deserved.
Howard the Duck may be a terrible game, yet it does have an enduring appeal as a rare piece of merchandise from one the most interesting failures in movie history. Although my Commodore 64 broke long ago, I still have the game in its original packaging. Maybe it’s because I’m one flat cat away from being on Hoarders, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to part with it. I know this world wasn’t very kind to Howard, but he saved it, didn’t he?
Chris Cummins is a pop culture and writer historian who thinks “Hunger City” is the best song of the 1980s. Debate this point with him on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.